“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” 4 out of 5 stars
With its 28th feature film since May 2008 — let that sink in for a minute — Marvel Studios has finally gone full-on horror with “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”
That this significant moment comes from the twisted mind and director’s eye of Sam Raimi is the type of serendipitous moment typically reserved for a, ahem, movie, but that the MCU reached this point at all is a testament to how much gas remains in the studio’s collective tank.
Marvel has of late been teasing a darker turn with the rollout of its phase four slate, particularly through its streaming Disney+ platform, including “Wandavision” and “Moon Knight,” a deep bench character whose list of comics adversaries includes Jack Russell, aka “Werewolf by Night.”
Nothing that has come before, however, can prepare fans for the visual onslaught of genuinely unsettling moments that Raimi embraces as if he was back at a certain cabin circa 1981 and conjuring Kandarian demons.
You’re likely going to read a lot of divided opinions on “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness,” and while some of the criticism might be warranted, please do not let that deter you from seeing this movie on the biggest screen possible. Let’s briefly dissect the possible negatives.
As big of a fan as I am of the MCU to date, I am equally capable of admitting that Marvel has struggled to find its footing post “Avengers: Endgame,” in large part because that 2019 blockbuster was the culmination of more than a decade of planning.
The struggle, thankfully, has not impacted the quality. “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” remains one of the best MCU origin stories, and a beautiful embrace of the mythology and traditions of its specific cultural inspiration, and “Spider-Man: No Way Home” delighted pretty much everyone with its trio of past-and-present web slingers battling a modified Sinister Six.
That said, “Black Widow” and “Eternals” didn’t connect nearly as well, in part, because of timing (“Black Widow” debuted after the death of Natasha Romanoff in “Endgame”) and a missed opportunity (“Eternals” should have been a Disney+ extended series followed by a feature film).
And to be completely honest, as much as I love sorcery and the dark mystic arts, the inaugural 2016 outing of “Doctor Strange,” while solid, was far from my favorite Phase Three film.
I’m also able to admit that while the MCU has to inject new blood into its ranks, some of the younger characters making the leap from comics panels to screen—Maya Lopez, aka Echo, and America Lopez, aka Ms. America—have yet to fully resonate with fans.
This is important as Chavez, who has only been a comics character since 2011, gets a big introduction in the “Multiverse of Madness,” yet doesn’t necessarily demonstrate exactly why we should care, other than she possesses the ability to move fluidly between universes, which likely will play a factor in upcoming films.
Speaking of fluid, unlike say “Shang-Chi,” which masterfully unspooled its epic tale with deliberate beats, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is built upon the bones of past films and Disney+ shows, making it that rare MCU entry that almost requires knowledge of everything that’s come before, or at the least, the events of “Wandavision” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”
As such, when it launches straight into the multiverse with an opening dream sequence featuring Strange and Chavez, it’s a bit off putting only in that you’re barely prepared for the ride to begin.
Thankfully, Raimi is no stranger to horror, and he quickly bends the MCU to his will with a dazzling array of visual sequences steeped in phantasmagoria. He also benefits from a truly terrifying creation, the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) fully unleashed after studying the Darkhold, which is Marvel’s version of the Necronomicon and a grimoire mashed together.
What will likely thrill and confound fans in equal measure is the dizzying array of introductions and cameos that populate the “Multiverse of Madness,” and while there are spoilers aplenty to be found online, I would advise you AVOID them all so that you too can clap and whoop as I did when the multiverse Illuminati is finally revealed.
Those characters alone, including some returning faces and some brand-new OMG actors, is both an exhilarating live-action “What If…,” and a tantalizing tease for what the second half of Phase Four has in store.
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” will be remembered. It’s an important building block for the franchise, but it’s also a gory blast of unexpected brilliance from a director who clearly is having a ball playing in his old scary sandbox.
It’s also the first MCU film in a long time that I can sincerely say I wanted to immediately watch again, seconds after the post-credits scene where a very familiar Raimi mainstay left the audience with a final delight by proclaiming “It’s finally over!”
This article was originally published by LEO Weekly’s sister paper, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. Read more of their work here.